Red Bay Alabama. Ever heard of it? Neither had I. Red Bay teeters on the border of Alabama and Mississippi, 2 1/2 hours from Memphis and an hour from Florence. It is the birthplace of Tiffin Motor Homes and Tammy Wynette. Tiffin RV owners come from near and far to Red Bay for repairs and modifications on their vehicles at the factory. My faithful readers (all two of you) will remember in an earlier installment we had an unfortunate counter-busting incident. In addition to that, we needed some other repairs, so after our pilgrimage to Graceland, we headed our Tiffin rig to the Red Bay factory. As we neared Red Bay, we merged with a steady stream of Tiffin RVs that were all migrating to the same destination. It was October, prime time for Snowbirds to head south, and Tiffin owners stop in Red Bay by the thousands for tune ups before parking in Boca Raton for the winter.
There is a huge motor home park nearby owned by the factory where people come with their ailing coaches to wait their turn in the service queue. No appointments are made, you just show up and wait. There are dozens of immense repair bays holding RVs in various states of disassembly. The waits can be extended—people told us they’d waited a month for service. You wait in your coach for a phone call summoning you to a bay. It’s a little like waiting for a transplant organ in that way because you are hostage to your phone and unable to go anywhere more interesting for fear of missing your summons and your place in line. There are other RV “parks” around town where the overflow crowd awaits. They are parks in the sense that one can park an RV there, but most are gravel lots with spaces and hookups and little else. To carry on the medical analogy, it’s the equivalent of a hospital waiting room, more tolerable than being waterboarded.
We toured the Tiffin facility to kill time while we were waiting. It was interesting to watch. They build 12 RVs per day, all on site. The RVs leave the factory to go up the road a bit for paint, then they are brought back to be finished. After that, and a visit to the Red Bay museum, there’s not much else to do. It’s one thing to wait God’s eternity for free warranty service, but for people like us there is an option.
The area surrounding the Tiffin mothership is dotted with RV repair businesses operated by former Tiffin employees. Woodworkers, electricians, bodywork, engine work, upholstery, tile, you name it, there’s a guy who can do that. An online users’ group for Tiffin owners maintains a list of what is called “after hours workers;” those who do work outside of Tiffin. That is how we found and met Chris.
Chris is a burly man with a wicked sense of humor and a little Boston Terrier named Marlee. Marlee and Ryder hit it off immediately. She has the run of the place and fearlessly supervises the RVs parking in her lot. She trots within inches of the huge tires, which unnerved Ben. “Get out there and make sure I don’t run over that dog,” though there was no danger of that happening. I swear she rolled her eyes at one driver who was less competent. At first light she was sitting on our steps waiting for Ryder to come out, and she didn’t go back to her house until well after dark. They played constantly, and since the place was out in the boondocks, Ry was allowed to roam freely. I think this was his favorite stop out of all our travels.
During our three – day stay at Chris’ shop he repaired our broken cabinet, built custom drawer slides for our cabinets, installed a new TV mount, helped Ben wire in new LED lights and showed us how to retract the slides if the power or mechanism should fail. He hooked us up with a guy to repair our wrecked counter, and another guy who repaired a torn seat cover. He also got a guy (who happens to be his daughter’s boyfriend) to replace some windows. They all had their stories about working and living in Red Bay. They grew up, attended school, married and worked in their community, knew everyone, and were unfailingly polite and kind to us, a couple Yankees.
As we headed home, I thought a lot about the people I met. This is the Deep South that everyone talks about. Small, tight communities unified by common experiences. There are shops and restaurants that cater to locals and tourists alike, although they are much more tolerant of our ways than we are of theirs. Red Bay residents are pretty much like locals I met in much larger tourist towns; accommodating and friendly but we short time visitors will never really know who they are, what their lives are like. I wonder what the town was like when it was bustling and had its own airport, which has become the Tiffin RV lot. Life in small towns like these is fragile; residents live around the one or two work centers that exist and there is little to no job diversity to protect them from the whims and fortunes of business. Red Bay is very dependent on the Tiffin factory. Everyone, just everyone was positive about the company’s founder, Bob Tiffin, and now the next generation is taking over–sons raised differently from others in Red Bay. Unlike other local businesses that employ townspeople, and export a product, the RV factory brings in a steady stream of tourists (more like the proverbial captive audience) who stay, eat, shop and provide work opportunities in town well beyond the factory walls. It’s a secondary and important economy.
We headed north in a knot of Tiffin RVs, and waved to the steady stream of southbound travelers that would fill our vacant berths. Gradually we all dispersed on our own journeys, but…we’ll be back! I hope Chris and all his “guys” are there when we return.